Analysis Paralysis? Spotify ‘Browse’ Picks Mood-Based Music (and More) for You

Moody? Spotify has a playlist for you.

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One of my quibbles with Spotify today, as someone using a high-definition computer display, is that text in the central view area running the computer client looks ugly, the non-system fonts legible but ragged, the album art obviously upscaled and blurred.

That’s what I notice each time I launch Spotify on my Retina Pro — shabby low-res trappings that comprise a kludgy image-stream. I don’t need my music browsing experience to be visually immaculate, but after assembling a library of high-res cover scans for my iTunes library, it’s a kick in the eyeballs to bring up Spotify and be reminded that it’s the one app I run in OS X still flouting a high-def makeover.

Instead — and I can get behind this — the company’s been folding in additives designed to help you sort through its vast library of songs, a library that’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 million tracks across all of its catalogs globally.

Let’s pause there for a moment. Imagine listening to 20 million songs. According to my temporarily downsized iTunes library, it’d take 12.3 days of nonstop listening to hear all of its 3,774 songs. Extrapolate to Spotify’s 20 million and you’re looking at roughly 65,000 days of nonstop listening to hear every last tune in full. Average life expectancy in the U.S. is currently 79, which yields around 28,124 days on the planet. Assuming nonsensically that you were born with a fully developed sense of musical understanding, you’d have to listen from diapers to Depends just to approach the halfway point. Even after you ruled out repeats via covers, live albums and remasters, you’d be a far cry from hearing everything. It’s a sobering statistical fact: We’ll go to our graves having heard but a fraction of the music on tap.

Given how relatively little time we have to hear what’s out there, discovering music that’s meaningful to us may be the most important thing we can do as listeners. You may know you want to listen to Bonnie Raitt, Brad Mehldau, Daft Punk and David Byrne in a given afternoon, but say you’ve never listened to John Zorn or never heard of Michael Mizrahi — how do you find your way to off-your-path material like the Book of Angels series, or an album like The Bright Motion?

Taking their cues from sites like Amazon, services like Spotify have been augmenting their recommendation tools, both to make it easier to find what you’re after and broaden our musical palettes. Take Discover, a tabbed Spotify feature that popped up last December and gradually trickled onto the streaming music service’s array of platforms. Instead of merely linking to an artist’s catalog, you get something more like Facebook‘s Newsfeed, vamping off your past selections and divvying ideas into categories like song, artist, album and concert listing. If you listen to Chick Corea, as I do, you might see a Songkick concert recommendation for the genre-hopping pianist, who happens to be coming to Detroit in April 2014 (I hadn’t realized until I browsed my feed this morning). Of you might see something riffing on a personal metric your age like “Such-and-such was popular when you were in school. Play now?” (Alas, I was in school in the 1980s when Tiffany was popular, not the 1950s where I might be seeing recommendations for songs from albums like Kind of Blue or Time Out.)

Some of the recommendations feel stretched, but I appreciate the reaching: I’d rather see Spotify point me at a contrapuntal jazz pianist like Brad Mehldau after listening to Glenn Gould (who never played jazz) perform the Golberg Variations, than have it safely reference another well-known classically-focused pianist playing the same music, which is how recommended lists usually (and boringly) have tended to work.

In any case, Spotify’s doubling down (or if we count the service’s social sharing features, maybe that’s tripling) with a new feature rolling out today called Browse. Granted “Browse” sounds like a synonym for Search and Discover, but this is a riff on neither. Instead, Spotify’s adding what it calls “expert playlists for every mood and moment.”

So curated playlists then, which doesn’t sound like much, but the company’s so confident in its expertise that it’s touting Browse as something you could use to deejay a public shindig, say a dinner party.

How about trusting the service to match your mood? Spotify boasts its handpicked playlists can service your disposition as well as “your morning commute, the party tonight, and the hangover tomorrow.” There’s also something of a post-genre element at play here: We’re accustomed to dropping music into columns like pop, rock, soul, R&B, blues, jazz, country and so forth, the argument being that categories help us find stuff we’re partial to. But categories like these are generic and tend to marginalize what they categorize. Is John Zorn jazz or klezmer? Avant-garde or aleatoric? I’m not sure Browse is going to settle questions like those with categories like “for romance” or “face-melting guitarists,” but deftly managed, it could offer some interesting wrinkles.

Even if you’re a “hangs close to the watering hole” listener, Spotify says Browse will provide updates about your favorite artist’s latest albums or single releases (I’d love also to see information about upcoming material integrated, or better still, a way to fold in informal information, say plans revealed by artists themselves, like when Neko Case let drop she was working on a new album via Twitter before the album itself was officially named and announced).

If you want to take it for a spin, Spotify says Browse will be gradually rolled out to iOS and Android users starting today, followed by all platforms.